The four bishops in the Diocese of Southwark meet once each month from 8am till 2pm. During this meeting one of us leads a Bible Study and this morning was my turn. Without going into detail, several intriguing questions emerged.
I picked up on the call by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians (2:11) to ‘remember’ their story and how they (Jews and non-Jews) had moved from being ‘aliens and strangers’ into being members of the same ‘family’. This injunction to ‘remember’ their story recalled the warnings given to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land way back in the Old Testament.
In Deuteronomy 26 (for example) they were told that when things began to go well for them they would soon forget their own history and begin to behave badly: if they took their gains for granted (and not as ‘gift’) they would forget that they had once been slaves and homeless wanderers – and would begin to treat other people as slaves, etc.
In order to try to avoid this sort of amnesia, the people would instigate an annual festival – a ritual aimed at reminding them of their origins and that their ‘blessing’ was to be regarded as ‘gift’ for the benefit of all in the community. One of these festivals involved the first crops of the harvest being brought to the priest and the recitation of a creed (the oldest form of creed in the Hebrew Bible). It begins with a blunt articulation of the reminder that ‘my ancestor was a wandering Aramaean…’. The active verbs are all attributed to God in the story of how the people were liberated from slavery, etc. So what?
The ritual re-telling of the story was intended to prevent the people ever forgetting their story. The Christian equivalent is the Eucharist (or Holy Communion). This is where we re-member our story of God’s generosity and re-commit ourselves to live generously as his people in the world. But how is this story to be told when people clearly do not learn the Christian ‘story’ by what I rudely call ‘liturgical osmosis’? Just hearing disconnected readings in a service (followed by a sermon which doesn’t always paint the big canvas onto which the particular detail of ‘today’s’ sermon fits) does not help people learn the content of the Christian faith, learn to handle the Bible or grow in confidence in having a ‘reason for the faith that is within’ them.
What worries me about this is the fact that many churches do not have Bibles in the pews. The Bible readings are often printed in a service sheet. In an increasing number of churches, everything is projected onto screens using PowerPoint. The net result is the same: the excerpts are disconnected and decontextualised. It is possible for a generation of Christians to grow up never handling a Bible or knowing how to read it as a book (or books). And this must have an impact on biblical literacy and confidence.
It seems to me (especially from how this matter is addressed when I do Parish Visits) that people need to grow in confidence in an intelligent handling of the Bible, an increasing familiarisation with its narratives and teachings and an openness to having character shaped by a regular reading of the Bible – alone and in the company of others. This means churches having Bibles available and encouraging people to use them during services. The Bible is not easy and needs some opening up if such confidence is to grow.
It is perhaps not surprising that some Christians feel diffident in using or defending the Bible in the face of an aggressive atheism/secularism or a confident Islam. A simplistic recourse to the sort of fundamentalism that cannot be questioned is hopeless in engaging with the wider world.
So, without in any way wanting to encourage a luddite approach to creativity, I do worry a bit about service sheets and screens and their effect on our corporate ‘remembering’ of our story. I am sure I am not alone.